Grade 6-8

Where’s the Beef?

Updated: December 8 2015,

Students explore meat consumption statistics, an indicator of a nation's relative prosperity and standard of living. They do a survey of a family's meat consumption and compare their results to statistics from Colonial and modern-day America.


In a large group or in small groups, discuss the following with your class: meat

There are almost 200 countries in the world! Some of them are richer; some are poorer. There are many different ways to tell how prosperous (rich) a country is. One of the ways, supported by data from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), is to see how much meat is eaten by the people of that country. There are exceptions of course. Japan is a very prosperous country, but they eat more fish than they do meat. Some cultures prefer to eat no meat at all. The Brahmans in India, for example, eat an entirely vegetarian diet. However, in most cases, more prosperous countries have a higher daily caloric intake and consume more meat per capita.

Is America a prosperous country today? What about in the past? How much meat do you eat? How do you think that compares to other Americans today, or to the American Colonists in the past?

[NOTE: It is important to point out to students that the same exceptions that can be found among nations or cultures can also be found on the familial level. Just as some cultures may choose vegetarian diets for religious reasons or low-meat/high-fish diets for reasons of taste or nutritional choice, families or individuals may do the same. It is vital to emphasize that these choices are not an indicator of the wealth of any one family, making sure to identify that caloric intake and meat consumption levels are general indicators of prosperity specifically at the national level.]

Learning Objectives

  • Recognize that meat consumption levels are often an indicator of a nation’s relative prosperity.
  • Survey a family’s meat consumption.
  • Compare their results to consumption statistics from Colonial and modern-day America.

Resource List


Have students work individually or in pairs to read and answer the following:

In most respects, America is the most prosperous country in the world. We have the largest economy in the world, and we enjoy a very high standard of living. When you hear the term ‘standard of living,’ what do you think of? Can you define it?world

Raising livestock requires more resources than growing crops, because the amount of grain fed to an animal produces less food than if that grain is fed directly to people. So in some countries, meat is a delicacy, or it is only eaten by very rich people. In America, because of our high standard of living, most people are able to afford meat. But was this always the case? What do you think the standard of living was like back in Colonial days?

[NOTE Optional: Inspire a discussion about how a nation’s natural resources can sometimes help determine the type of food that nation eats. For example, the United States has a lot of rangeland, so we produce more livestock; Japan is an island, and so they produce and consume more fish; etc. This discussion can even be broken down by smaller regional units, such as the production and consumption of cheese in Wisconsin or grapes in Naples, New York, etc.]

Colonial America:

The new land of America was blessed with many natural advantages, including good land and soil and a favorable climate. There were wide sections of undeveloped land, sufficient not only for the production of crops but also for the raising of livestock. The American colonists were very hard working, and most lived on or near a farm. [95% lived in the country, 40% were independent farmers.] Taking advantage of these beneficial natural advantages, they specialized in growing crops and raising livestock, and most did very well. [The average independent farmer was able to sell 40% of his crops for cash.]

Even before we were officially a country, we were very prosperous, and the Colonists’ reward for all their hard work was a high standard of living. [By 1740, the American standard of living had surpassed Europe’s, and the Colonies, with only 32% the population of Great Britain, reached 50% her productivity. In comparison to the British, very few of whom owned any property, 70% of the Colonists owned enough property to have the voting franchise. By the latter half of the 18th century, American men were 2-3 inches taller than their English and European counterparts (largely due to more nutritive, higher protein diets).]

They wanted the good life, and they believed that eating meat was a necessary part of that good life. [Henry Adams commented that it was considered essential to have pork in all three meals.]

Back in Colonial times, in 1784 a typical family of four in Watley, MA, each person ate 1/2 lb. of meat every single day! [Family of four would consume 500 lbs of pork and 200 lbs. of beef in 1 year.] Does that seem like a lot? Do you think it is more or less than your family eats today? Let’s find out!

How Much Meat Do You Eat?

Keeping Track:

meat2In order to find out, choose a family whose meat consumption you would like to survey. This could be your family, or if you would like, you can choose another family to survey. [Friends or relative’s families make good choices, or the student can survey shoppers at a supermarket.]

For three days, take note of all the meat your chosen family eats. To help you keep track, print out the Personal Meat Consumption Chart .

Studying the Results
Using the notes you took over the three days, use the Consumption Calculator  to find out the average daily meat consumption.

[NOTE: This is not an actual calculator and will not do the calculations for your students. They will need a regular calculator to complete their calculations.]

How Do We Compare?

Remember, each member of the typical Colonial family ate 1/2 a pound of meat per day…well, to be exact, it was 0.48 lbs. So, what was the number you came up with using the Consumption Calculator? Was it more or less than what the Colonists ate?

With help from your teacher, find the average result for the whole class. [total of all students’ meat consumption per day in lbs. divided by number of students] How does this number compare to the Colonists’ amount?

Now, take a look at this U.S. Meat Consumption Fact Sheet . Look at the data of the most recent year and read the information below find the total amount of meat consumed per person in America for that year. If you wanted to figure out how you or your class compares, what would you have to do? [Take the student’s or the class’ average consumption in lbs. and multiply by 365.]

[NOTE: This activity is set up so that each student may choose to survey a family other than his or her own, thus enabling vegetarians fully to participate. By making the survey an academic exercise, no student need feel left out due to the nutritional choices or economic circumstances of his or her family.]


Have students consider the following:

So, what did you find? Do you eat more meat than the Colonists did, or less? What about in comparison to the modern day American average?

If there is a big difference, either between your class’ average and that of modern-day or Colonial Americans, do you have an explanation for why that might be? Does it tell you anything about their prosperity then, or about ours today? What other factors might explain the difference? Do you think that meat consumption is an indicator of wealth?

Extension Activity

To learn more about what life was like in Colonial times, visit this Think quest site all about Colonial Kids .

Visit this website to learn more about global meat consumption .


This activity requires the completion of the Consumption Survey and the successful use of arithmetic in the calculations done using the Consumption Calculator . These results provide a means for direct assessment of students’ performance.